Freidman’s phrase, communication is a necessity, not a luxury.
Kampala, Uganda–In a “flattened” world, to borrow Thomas Freidman’s phrase, communication is a necessity, not a luxury.
The world has changed more rapidly in the past two decades than I could have imagined. Cell phone technology has allowed Africa, and other parts of the world where landline telephones were not installed, to leap frog over the technology gap. Today, text messaging and cell phone calls are nothing remarkable.
To appreciate this, you have to go back just a few years ago when telephone systems were owned by governments across Africa. The wait to get a telephone installed was years. It was costly and time-consuming. A customer had to go through a bureaucratic process that could take months. The installation of wire was billed to the customer, as was the leasing of land on which to place poles if necessary. It was a nightmare.
To use a telephone many people had to resort to going to the nearest post office, pay a deposit, schedule time and return to make a call. This was the procedure if you wanted to talk to your relatives outside the country. Inside the country the procedure was somewhat easier, but no less inconvenient.
The revolution came with packet technology, dispensing with the need for expensive copper wires and poles. Liberalized policies by African governments, pressed by the awareness of their citizens that the rest of the world was already far ahead of the anachronistic government telephone systems, has led to widespread use of cell phones in African countries.
There are places where the cell towers don’t relay signals, but they are becoming fewer by the day. And the cost of the technology, coupled with its accessibility and easy purchase has made cell phones ubiquitous on African streets.
Having experienced the old system, and having confronted the intransigent bureaucracy in many countries, I would have been far more pessimistic that this new technology could be incorporated so quickly. But it’s now a reality. Clearly, there is more to be done to provide universal access, but that’s an economic problem, not a technological problem.
The technology is available to give access to nearly everyone on earth. Where cell towers don’t reach, radio waves and satellite signals do. The challenge is to get the cost down so that it’s affordable to those in remote areas outside the cell system now.
Given the experience of the past few years, I wouldn’t hazard a guess how long it will take. Someone is figuring it out right now.